The Power of the 80% Leader

Have you ever thought that someone was complimenting you, but it turns out they were not?  Oops!

I’ve lost track of how many times someone has told me, “I can’t believe you accomplish everything that you do, your workload seems insane!”  Until recently, I thought that was a good thing.  But as I am getting older and wiser (hopefully?), and as I listen to the voices of good leaders around me, I am beginning to see more clearly that “Wow, you accomplish a lot” can be an unintentional accusation of an unhealthy leadership pattern.

During a single month, three independent people (two of whom have significant senior leadership experience) talked to me and stressed the danger of going at full speed as an ongoing rhythm of leadership.  Each of them told me I needed to slow down and do it right away.  What?!  That sounds crazy!  Who aims to do less than 100%?  It turns out that good senior leaders do, apparently.

Here is why.  If a senior executive leader is constantly going at 100%, then he or she does not have the ability to deal with the next organizational emergency that will inevitably occur.  It is just a matter of time.  When the senior leader does not have the necessary capacity to lead through the surprises of leadership, the mission and people of the entire organization will suffer.

One of the challenges, of course, is that leaders do not know when the emergency will arrive; it could appear tomorrow or maybe not for another four months. A good leader must intentionally and strategically create ongoing “available capacity,” so they are ready to deal with unexpected organizational crises whenever they arrive.

What, then, is a reasonable target for a senior executive leader to aim for?  What is the most effective percentage of capacity that should be normal for a healthy executive leader? The ideal number seems to be 80%.

Now let me be candid for a minute.  When I first heard that, I thought to myself, “That’s crazy; what kind of lazy leader would actually plan to lead at only 80% of their ability?  How does anything get done?  What kind of leadership example is that?” (Apparently, I have unhealthy performance-based workaholic tendencies that I need to correct!)

In recent years, I have adjusted my schedule and workload so that I am no longer racing down the track at 100% every day.  I am aiming for 80%.  But I have to tell you, it has not been easy, and I haven’t always hit that target.  However, when I have managed to work at 80% for significant periods, I have been an objectively better leader, and I have been able to deal with major crises more effectively.

I am committed to becoming the best organizational leader that I can be, and I continue to adjust both my calendar and projects so that I will have the necessary capacity to lead well through unexpected storms whenever they arrive.

What about you?

What percentage of your capacity do you currently lead at? Do you have the capacity to lead well through the coming crisis?  What changes do you need to make for your health and for the sake of the organization or department that you lead?

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